The Biggest Cinematic Breakthroughs of 2016
It’s always exciting to see the latest work from a beloved director or a great actor returning to a classic role. But one of the most underrated pleasures of going to the movies is discovery; watching an actor you’d never heard of before surprise you with their incredible range or charisma, or realizing, in real time, that you’re witnessing the work of a major new artist. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
The staff of ScreenCrush was repeatedly dazzled by young talents in 2016, and to honor their work we assembled this list of our ten favorite breakthrough actors and directors. Each of these men and women impressed us, entertained us, amused us, or horrified us. All of them made us excited to see whatever they do next.
Actor, Hail, Caesar!
Before he became the young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich won our hearts as Hobie Doyle, a sweet-tempered, dim-witted cowboy movie star in the Coen brothers’ brilliant Hollywood celebration/satire, Hail, Caesar! Quick with a lasso and slow with a proper line reading, Ehrenreich stole every Caesar! scene he was in and emerged as the clear standout in a cast of heavyweights that also included Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand. We can’t predict how well Ehrenreich will do as Han, but Lucasfilm couldn’t have made a better choice for the role of the galaxy’s most beloved smuggler. Frankly, we’re a little worried Ehrenreich’s star might blow up so fast we won’t see him in quirky supporting roles like Hobie for a while. It’s hard to balance those big projects with the little ones. Would that it were so simple. — Matt Singer
Actor, The Nice Guys
Angourie Rice’s performance in Shane Black’s noir comedy (which, like most Shane Black films, is vastly under-appreciated in its time) is magnetic in a way that’s genuine but never earnest, and identifiable in a way that skirts the fine line between annoyingly precocious and delightfully realistic. The 15-year-old Australian plays the daughter of Ryan Gosling’s opportunistic private eye, delivering a refreshing take on the familiar “Who’s the real parent here?” relationship. Rice’s effortless chemistry with her co-star is impressive for her age, and a sign of even better things to come. Those things include co-starring with fellow breakout Michael Barbieri in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. — Britt Hayes
Anna Rose Holmer
Director, The Fits
There’s something magical about Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature The Fits, and it’s not just the mysterious phenomena in the film that causes young girls to break out into seizures. The coming-of-age tale follows Royalty Hightower’s Toni, a young tomboy who trains with her older brother in after-school boxing but longs to join the female dance squad next door. Holmer delicately explores the sides of masculinity and femininity residing within her young lead, while the subplot about potential contaminated water feels like a prescient commentary on the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan. The Fits continually surprises and moves you, and ends with one of the most spectacular finales of any film this year. After this first fiction feature, I’m begging to see more from Holmer. — Erin Whitney
Director, 10 Cloverfield Lane
After winning over fans with his Portal short film, Dan Trachtenberg made the leap to the big screen with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Whether originally intended as a Cloverfield film or not (it was initially shot under the mysterious title Valencia), the end result is good enough to stand on its own; a riveting and intimate thriller about a doomsday paranoiac (John Goodman, in one of the year’s best performances) holding two people hostage in his fallout shelter. Casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the role of one of Goodman’s prisoners was incredibly wise, but what Trachtenberg does with her part is even better, and makes a compelling case for giving Winstead her own action-thriller franchise. It’s easy to envision a career path for Trachtenberg that involves Jurassic Parks and Aliens and MCUs, and that could be fun. But we’d really love to see him continue to turn simple genre concepts into original features. — BH
Actor, Hidden Figures
Her small supporting role in Moonlight suggested it, and her larger turn in Hidden Figures confirmed it: Janelle Monae is going to be a huge movie star. Both roles showed she has that intangible it factor that only the most special screen talents possess; as the saying goes, when she’s onscreen, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. In Hidden Figures, she plays Mary Jackson, a pioneering engineer at NASA during the 1950s and ’60s. In limited screen time, Monae makes Jackson into a richly complex character; defiant, loyal, brave, hilarious, and charismatic as hell. When she talks a conservative judge into bending the rules of segregation to allow her to take engineering classes at an all-white high school, Monae’s so persuasive you don’t doubt for a single second that this guy would have done anything she asked him to do. — MS
Actor, Little Men
This 14-year-old actor owns every scene in Ira Sachs’ Little Men, a family drama about two young boys whose budding friendship is challenged by their parents’ ongoing rent dispute. Sachs is known for capturing the authentic essence of New York City onscreen, and with Barbieri, Little Men feels like it found a true slice of Brooklyn life. He oozes with wiseguy charm, almost like a young De Niro or Pacino. Next up, Barbieri co-stars in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but you can bet he’ll be leading his own movie in no time. — EW
Director, The Witch
Few directorial debuts are as assured as The Witch, Robert Eggers’ pitch-perfect New England folktale about a Puritan family and their devout patriarch, who seems a little too eager to have their faith tested. And tested it is, repeatedly, from the eerie opening scene to the deliciously devious conclusion. Beautifully filmed and performed with unnerving period accuracy, The Witch finds terror in utter simplicity. Eggers’ approach to unraveling this madness is impressively measured but never overwrought, over-plotted, or overthought. Up next, Eggers is concocting a remake of Nosferatu and developing a miniseries based on the life of Rasputin. We can’t wait. — BH
Actor, American Honey
The moment Sasha Lane appears onscreen in American Honey, it’s easy to see why director Andrea Arnold plucked the 21-year-old Texas native from a crowd of rowdy spring breakers to anchor her film. Lane plays Star, a young woman struggling to take care of herself and her two younger siblings while fending off their abusive father. A chance encounter with a traveling salesman (Shia LaBeouf) and his band of merrily dysfunctional youth convinces Star to hit the road. What follows is breathtakingly poignant, but none of it would work without Lane. Despite (or maybe because of) her lack of experience, Lane conveys so much with the slightest of looks and the smallest of words. Perhaps you can chalk it up to Lane herself, a free spirit who majored in psychology in college before taking time off to consider her path, which led her straight to spring break and a director who finds startling beauty in the people and places that are often overlooked. — BH
It should be noted that Trevante Rhodes looks almost nothing like Ashton Sanders, even though both actors are supposed to playing the same young man, Chiron, at different points in his life. Sanders is built like a twig; Rhodes looks like he lives in a weight room. Credit to Rhodes (along with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins) for making Chiron’s transformation into the musclebound “Black” feel like a natural progression and not a bewildering break in continuity. Rhodes is convincing as an intimidating drug dealer, but his best moments come after Black receives a surprising phone call from Kevin (André Holland), a former lover he hasn’t spoken to in years. When Rhodes picks up that phone, all of his hardened defenses collapse. And in that instant we see Rhodes turn Black back into Chiron with just the look in his eyes and the expression on his face. Screen acting doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s hoping other filmmakers take notice of Rhodes’ stellar work, and keep casting him in roles worthy of his skills. — MS
Trey Edward Shults
After more than a decade on this job, you grow accustomed to what certain kinds of movies look like. In that time I’ve seen dozens of indies like Krisha, about a dysfunctional family coming apart at the seams over Thanksgiving. But Trey Edwards Shults, making a resourceful low-budget debut, reinvents familiar material. He gets performances from his cast that feel as raw as the skin under a freshly removed Band-Aid. He keeps his camera constantly moving through the family’s suburban house, as if it’s searching for an escape from this handsomely appointed prison. And he refuses to look away as the night drags on and tensions rise. Shults, who’s already shooting his next film for A24 with Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough, is still in his 20s. It shouldn’t be legal to be this good and that young. — MS